How the “Fake News” Scare Is Marginalizing the Left

Unaccountable tech companies are defining the parameters of acceptable discourse.

Julianne Tveten October 11, 2017

(Getty Images)

Last month, the Rus­sia-Fear­mon­ger­ing-Indus­tri­al Com­plex grew ever greater when reports sur­faced that Russ­ian actors had pur­chased more than $100,000 worth of polit­i­cal ads to dis­play on Face­book. News out­lets report­ed that the ads were designed to crit­i­cize Hillary Clin­ton while bol­ster­ing sup­port for Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders and Don­ald Trump — and to lure right-wing votes via appeals for the rights of gun owners.

In characterizing the ads as menacing mirrors of right and left ideologies, mainstream media’s message remains clear: Only the corporate-sponsored center can be trusted.

Even with­out con­fir­ma­tion of Rus­sia con­nec­tions, CNN, The Wash­ing­ton Post, Politi­co, The New York Times and oth­er media sources have been res­olute in their attempts to cast the ads as shad­owy pro­pa­gan­da designed to prey on U.S. Face­book users. In the process, they’ve pos­tu­lat­ed nox­ious canards — name­ly, the sug­ges­tion that racial-jus­tice orga­niz­ing is a prod­uct of Russ­ian machi­na­tions — and left the ads’ ori­gins and aims nebulous.

In char­ac­ter­iz­ing the ads as men­ac­ing mir­rors of right and left ide­olo­gies, main­stream media’s mes­sage remains clear: Only the cor­po­rate-spon­sored cen­ter can be trusted.

The nar­ra­tive is one of the lat­est stir­rings of the pan­icked spec­ta­cle that is Fake News.” In the wake of the 2016 elec­tion, pun­dits point­ed their fin­gers at Face­book, Google and Twit­ter, accus­ing them of spread­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion about polit­i­cal issues and fig­ures to the U.S. vot­ing cit­i­zen­ry. A cir­cuitous, con­cern-trolling tac­tic, the Fake News scare soon gained momen­tum among cor­po­rate media out­lets and politi­cians seek­ing to find palat­able scape­goats for the stun­ning elec­tion of Don­ald Trump.

When the pres­sure grew too high to ignore the calls for Fake News con­tain­ment, the Inter­net giants took action. Google began to stymie ads it deemed dubi­ous. Face­book float­ed fea­tures to flag Fake News and tweaked its ad pol­i­cy. Months lat­er, Twit­ter joined the cho­rus, essen­tial­ly echo­ing Facebook’s approach.

These adjust­ments, how­ev­er, haven’t sti­fled pro­pa­gan­da. On the con­trary, they may have sti­fled dis­sent. Since Google’s algo­rith­mic updates in April, a num­ber of left-wing sites have seen their search traf­fic plum­met. The World Social­ist Web Site (WSWS) report­ed67 per­cent dip in traf­fic between April and July of this year, with a total decrease of 85 per­cent since Google imple­ment­ed changes. (Its edi­to­r­i­al chair­man David North recent­ly spoke about this to The New York Times.) Left-lean­ing sites Alter­net, Democ­ra­cy Now, Com­mon Dreams, Glob­al Research and Truthout have suf­fered sim­i­lar declines, WSWS report­ed, rang­ing from 49 to 71 per­cent. Alter­net and Glob­al Research have issued addi­tion­al laments, the for­mer claim­ing to have lost an aver­age of 1.2 mil­lion of the 2.7 mil­lion unique vis­i­tors the site receives from search traf­fic each month since June.

This may sound famil­iar. Last year, The Wash­ing­ton Post linked to the now-infa­mous pro­mul­ga­tions of neo-McCarthy­ist orga­ni­za­tion Pro­pOrNot, which clas­si­fied Truthout, and oth­er left-lean­ing news sources as poten­tial Russ­ian pro­pa­gan­da agents. (The Post did not name any sites in its sto­ry.) Mean­while, cen­trist news orga­ni­za­tions have borne no such brunt. The Wash­ing­ton Post, for exam­ple, has boast­ed sta­tis­tics of 74 to 92 mil­lion month­ly vis­i­tors, thanks in no small part to the cor­po­rate web. Inter­net users doing search­es on Google, since the algo­rithms were put in place, are divert­ed from sites such as Truthdig and direct­ed to main­stream pub­li­ca­tions such as The New York Times,” jour­nal­ist Chris Hedges wrote in September.

Such devel­op­ments under­score the per­ils of rely­ing on pri­vate tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies to reg­u­late polit­i­cal con­tent. In March, Eric Schmidt, the bil­lion­aire chair­man of Google’s par­ent com­pa­ny Alpha­bet, assured the Fox Busi­ness view­er­ship that tech­nol­o­gy could indeed detect Fake News, sug­gest­ing that the best meth­ods would be a mat­ter of com­pa­nies’ furtive dis­cre­tion. It should be pos­si­ble for com­put­ers to detect mali­cious, mis­lead­ing, and incor­rect infor­ma­tion and essen­tial­ly have you not see it,” Schmidt said. We’re not argu­ing for cen­sor­ship. We’re argu­ing, just take it off the page.”

Google-styled cen­sor­ship is accept­able, Schmidt implied, as long as it’s pre­emp­tive. If the claims of WSWS and Alter­Net are any indi­ca­tion, it’s not hard to imag­ine the search behemoth’s inter­est in silenc­ing voic­es that con­demn the cor­po­rate struc­tures that have allowed its suc­cess. In light of Google’s recent oust­ing of a monop­oly crit­ic, Bar­ry Lynn, from its think tank, New Amer­i­ca, the prospect would seem to grow only more tangible.

What’s more, Face­book and Twit­ter both have pat­terns of muz­zling activists and peo­ple of col­or while pro­tect­ing white men. As ProP­ub­li­ca has revealed, Face­book has rou­tine­ly removed posts of those who rebuke white suprema­cy and police killings of peo­ple of col­or, even when they don’t vio­late its poli­cies, while clas­si­fy­ing white men a pro­tect­ed cat­e­go­ry” enti­tled to more pro­tec­tions from free speech than such sub­sets” as black chil­dren. Twit­ter, mean­while, is loathe to so much as sus­pend the accounts of neo-Nazis, pre­fer­ring to ver­i­fy their most mar­ketable faces and pub­lish their orga­ni­za­tions’ ads.

Soon, Twit­ter will face Con­gress over a net­work of Rus­sia-linked accounts pro­mot­ing such hash­tags as #boy­cottn­fl, #stand­forouran­them and #takeaknee, as well as news sto­ries with a pri­ma­ry theme of anti-Amer­i­can­ism.” Some of these sto­ries, accord­ing to The New York Times, con­nect­ed Hillary Clin­ton to such events as the ter­ror­ist attack in Beng­hazi and focused on wire­tap­ping in the fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tion of for­mer Trump cam­paign chair­man Paul Man­afort. (In the same hand­wring­ing report, the Times fret­ted about Vladimir Putin’s plan to dark­en the image of the Unit­ed States.”)

Verac­i­ty aside, the car­di­nal sin of these accounts, pun­dits imply, is their afore­men­tioned anti-Amer­i­can­ism”: their audac­i­ty to attempt to manip­u­late the pub­lic and to under­mine democ­ra­cy.” Like­ly a euphemistic way to lam­bast unsa­vory mes­sag­ing about cen­trist sta­tus-quo avatar Hillary Clin­ton, such an accu­sa­tion is essen­tial­ly a base­less exag­ger­a­tion. As Aaron Maté recent­ly not­ed in The Nation, the num­ber of accounts under sus­pi­cion — 200 — pales in com­par­i­son to Twitter’s 328 mil­lion users. To sug­gest 200 accounts out of 328 mil­lion could have had an impact is as much an insult to com­mon sense as it is to basic math,” Maté wrote. The Face­book case offers an ana­logue: A $100,000 Face­book ad buy,” accord­ing to Maté, seems unlike­ly to have had much impact in a $6.8 bil­lion election.” 

Still, to atone for host­ing such appar­ent affronts to U.S. integri­ty, Twit­ter has sought aid from U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies in try­ing to find and stop illic­it inter­fer­ence from oth­er coun­tries,” the Times notes. Mean­while, Face­book has deliv­ered its ads to Con­gress, includ­ing the Sen­ate and House Intel­li­gence committees. 

The U.S. pub­lic has nev­er quite learned the cri­te­ria of Fake News, nor has it received a coher­ent, con­clu­sive expla­na­tion of exact­ly what Rus­sia did. The U.S. pub­lic has, how­ev­er, been giv­en a crash course in cor­po­rate, cen­trist boos­t­er­ism. Anx­i­eties over the roles of Face­book, Google and Twit­ter in dis­sem­i­nat­ing of Russ­ian-engi­neered Fake News have mere­ly posit­ed the cor­po­rate state’s cen­trism as gospel and antag­o­nized the Left in increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed ways. Fur­ther­more, the pro­posed tech­no­crat­ic solu­tion of rely­ing on these unac­count­able mega­com­pa­nies to deter­mine what infor­ma­tion they broad­cast will only exac­er­bate the problem.

As tech com­pa­nies pre­pare to coop­er­ate with intel­li­gence agen­cies, and their own­ers inch clos­er to steer­ing cor­po­rate media both indi­rect­ly and direct­ly, it becomes ever more urgent to rec­og­nize the irony of it all: Cen­trist alarmism doesn’t destroy harm­ful pro­pa­gan­da — it cre­ates it.

A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this arti­cle incor­rect­ly stat­ed that Alter­net had been list­ed as fake news by the group Pro­pOrNot, and that the site had lost 1.2 mil­lion of its 2.7 mil­lion unique month­ly vis­i­tors. These fig­ures actu­al­ly reflect the month­ly vis­i­tors the site receives from search traf­fic. The sto­ry has been updat­ed to cor­rect these errors.

Julianne Tveten writes about tech­nol­o­gy, labor, and cul­ture, among oth­er top­ics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Cap­i­tal & Main, KPFK Paci­fi­ca Radio, and elsewhere.
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